I heard the powerful, and formerly homeless, Chris Gardner speak at the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration in Austin on January 20, 2007. His booming voice and charismatic personality filled the large hall during his talk and enthralled me when I shook his hand afterward.
Chris is best known as the subject of the 2006 $300 million+ grossing movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The movie, for which Will Smith won an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe award, is based on Chris’ New York Times #1 best selling book The Pursuit of Happyness. Jaden Smith, Will’s Son, plays Chris’ son in the movie.
The book details Gardner’s remarkable life journey. In his early years, he had to deal with poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and family illiteracy. He had a violent, physically abusive step-father who beat him and his mother frequently and nearly killed her. His mother was imprisoned twice…once for trying to burn down their house with his step-father in it. He was put in foster care twice and was eventually adopted by relatives.
He became a hospital corpsman in the Navy and afterward, went on to become a research lab assistant in San Francisco and a medical equipment salesman. He left his wife to live with dental student Jackie Medina, with whom he had his first child Christopher Jr. in January 1981.
One day he encounted a well-dressed man (Bob Bridges) with a red Ferrari and asked him what he did. Bob told Chris that he was a stock broker and at that moment, Chris decided that’s what he wanted to do. On the very day that he had an interview (which Bob arranged), he had just gotten out of a 10-day stay in prison due to $1,200 in parking tickets he could not pay. Jackie had accused him of beating her (which he still denies) and disappeared along with all of his possessions and their child. He showed up at his interview wearing the casual clothes on his back and with no formal education or experience, got into the training program at Dean Witter Reynolds.
Through hard work, he was the top trainee and got his license and a job at Bear Stearns. After four months, Jackie returned with his son and Chris gained custody of him. Still not making much money and without the knowledge of his co-workers, Chris and his son were homeless for a year. They spent nights in a bathroom at the transit station, his office, at flophouses, and at parks. Eventually they were allowed to stay at the Glide shelter for homeless women while he saved money for a place for them to live.
In 1987, after just five years and with just $10,000, Chris started his own brokerage firm called Gardner Rich in Chicago. He sold part of his stake in the firm for several million dollars in 2006 and became founder and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings.
Chris is a remarkable man who is making many positive things happen in the world. He met with Nelson Mandela and is working on a venture in South Africa that will bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars into the country.
Chris has helped out Glide, which gave him and his son shelter, and helped fund $50 million to build homeless low-income housing and provide emnployment to homeless people in San Francisco, where he was once homeless. He is involved in other philanthropic ventures, serves on several non-profit boards, and has received many awards, including the National Fatherhood Initiative’s Father of the Year honor.
Gardner’s second book, Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, was published on May 12, 2009. Today the 55-year-old Chris Gardner, who also has a daughter Jacintha who was born in 1985, is worth an estimated $165 million.
Thomas Jefferson penned these words in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Despite unbelievable odds, Chris Gardner has worked hard and lived his life by these words. You can find out more about Chris on his website at www.ChrisGardnerMedia.com.
See this bigger-than-life, charismatic man in action in this video of Chris giving the commencement speech about a new vision of the American Dream at UC Berkeley on 5/22/09.
I’m so glad I met him. He gives me hope for our country and inspires me.